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SCOTUS Unanimously Rejects Law Banning Sex Offenders From Social Media

The justices say the law's "unprecedented" and "staggering" scope violates the First Amendment.

N.C. Department of Public SafetyN.C. Department of Public SafetyToday the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a North Carolina law that bans registered sex offenders from any "commercial social networking Web site" that is open to minors. With the exception of Neil Gorsuch, who did not participate in the case because he was not on the Court when it was argued, every justice agreed that the law's broad scope cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment.

The case was brought by Lester Packingham, who at the age of 21 had sex with a 13-year-old girl and was convicted of taking indecent liberties with a minor. Eight years later, Packingham beat a traffic ticket and expressed his pleasure on Facebook: "Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismiss the ticket before court even started. No fine, No court costs, no nothing spent….Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!" That burst of online exultation violated North Carolina's ban on social media use, which covers all registered sex offenders, regardless of whether their crimes involved minors or the internet.

Packingham argued that his conviction violated the First Amendment, and a state appeals court agreed. The North Carolina Supreme Court did not. Siding with Packingham today, the U.S. Supreme Court concludes that the law "burden[s] substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government's legitimate interests."

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy emphasizes the internet's vital importance to freedom of speech. "This case is one of the first this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet," he says. "As a result, the Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium."

Kennedy says North Carolina's law "enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens," applying indiscriminately to many kinds of online activity, even when it has nothing to do with contacting minors. "By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge," he writes. "These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard....To foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights."

In a concurring opinion joined by John Roberts and Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito notes that the law's broad definition of "commercial social networking Web site" covers not only widely used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter but also shopping sites such as Amazon and news sites such as The Washington Post. Alito says the law's "staggering reach...makes it a felony for a registered sex offender simply to visit a vast array of websites, including many that appear to provide no realistic opportunity for communications that could facilitate the abuse of children."

The Court's decision in Packingham v. North Carolina not only vindicates the First Amendment but provides a welcome dose of skepticism about sweeping, indiscriminate laws that are supposedly justified by the need to protect children from sexual predators. In this case, as in many others, the law went far beyond that goal, criminalizing a wide range of innocent actions by people classified as sex offenders, most of whom pose no real threat to children.

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  • meister574||

    For all the faults the SCOTUS have on other rights, they tend to be very good when in comes to the first amendment.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Is Hit & Run comments section 'social media'?

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    It doesn't matter now, Paul. You are safe. Feel free to keep commenting.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I identify as a 30 year old going on 17, so lucky for you this decision came out making your visitation of Reason okay.

  • Necron 99||

    What is it, First Amendment Appreciation Day at the Supreme Court?

  • Crusty Juggler - Elite||

    SCOTUS continues to stroke the stimulated shaft of free speech.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    They're gently cupping the balls of liberty.

  • Crusty Juggler - Elite||

    Altio ensures liberty's luscious lumps stay liberally lubricated.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Kennedy playfully tweaks a nipple.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency
    a model for male audience stimulation
    Dinesh Chugtai and Bertram Gilfoyle
    Mean Jerk Time

  • albo||

    Even 8 blind squirrels can sometimes stumble into two nuts of liberty.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I wonder how much of this is reaction against social justice warriors and their safe spaces and rejection of even the most basic First Amendment principles. I don't mean the verdicts themselves (8-0, both), but the strong language in the verdicts.

  • Tony||

    Are you talking about the people who recently shut down a production of a Shakespeare play because of content they didn't like?

  • BearOdinson||

    I really don't think you are going to get any arguments for socons here. But, nice deflection.

  • WakaWaka||

    I don't think you'd even find any socons defending the actions of those people. I thought they were those populist right provocateurs. I can't imagine any of them were religiously motivated

  • BearOdinson||

    Actually, I do think you are right. The majority of folks I know who would describe themselves as socially conservative aren't for that kind of nonsense. They may not want to patronize something they don't agree with, but they aren't going to forcibly prevent others from doing it on their own dime.

    (Leaving aside that this is Shakespeare)

  • Number 7||

    well I for one don't think regicide has any place in a decent society.

  • Regis Flibin||

    Me, neither.

    That is, I have no place in a decent society.

  • Crusty Juggler - Elite||

    Are you talking about the people who recently shut down a production of a Shakespeare play because of content they didn't like?

    Yes Tony, there is a Horseshoe Theory-like aspect with the alt-right and social justice warriors.

  • WakaWaka||

    Don't tell Tony he's right, even when he's right. This will just encourage him. I liked you better as a 'lamertarian'

  • Mickey Rat||

    I hope it is annoyance with the idea that because a communication technology did not exist in the late 18th Century then the 1st Amendment does not apply.

  • GroundTruth||

    Maybe the high water mark of the pogrom against sex offenders has finally been reached, and a bit more common sense will start being required in dealing with those who have "paid their debt to society".

    Nice to see a unanimous decision making the headlines once in a while!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Justice Roberts, Alito and Thomas stated that they still think:
    Because protecting children from abuse is a compelling state interest and sex offenders can (and do) use the inter-net to engage in such abuse, it is legitimate and entirely reasonable for States to try to stop abuse from occurring before it happens.

    They are clearly for sex offender registries too. Crime think and registries are just blatant violations of the Constitution. Really disappointed in Thomas. Roberts and Alito are pro Nanny-State.

  • Juice||

    Really disappointed in Thomas.

    lol, you're not used to that by now? He's not a libertarian.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    He had the occasional gem dissent. I know he's not Libertarian but when the other justice gave legal opinions that clearly violated the Constitution he at least was a dissent of constitutional spirit.

    You cannot constitutionally justify sex registries for people after they have done their criminal sentence. Its like a registry for black people or gun owners. You cannot force people to do things in the name of crime think.

    Another reason why the ObamaCare force you to buy insurance scheme was ridiculous.At least, Thomas dissented to that.

  • richarddozier@gmail.com||

    Thomas tends to support STATES doing whatever they like to do to their citizens. Most of his rulings that I agree with have something to do with upholding state's "rights" (as if states have "rights") when the federal government intrudes upon them than with actual libertarian impulses.

  • oncefallendotcom||

    I'm shocked it was a unanimous decision, especially coming from a John "Registries are no more intrusive than Price Club memberships" Roberts. Since Costco bought them out, does Costco send US Marshals to your door to verify your membership?

  • mpercy||

    Now if we can purge the rolls of people who took a leak in an alley. And also those teenagers who had sex with other teenagers?

  • BearOdinson||

    But what about the children? Isn't anybody fucking thinking of the gods damned children??

  • ||

    First, NC rewrites the bathroom law to allow men into the women's room and now they make it OK for pedophiles to be on the internet. You'd have to be blind not to see where all this is headed.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Define 'blind'. It can be from missing or defective eyeballs, covered eyeballs, lights turned out, solar eclipse, or probably nuclear winter. Or death.

  • Radioactive||

    or just willfully squinting real real hard...

  • Radioactive||

    and saying neener, neener neener real loud so you can't hear anything either...

  • Rich||

    You'd have to be blind not to see where all this is headed.

    Pedophile men using the internet in the women's room?

  • cgr2727||

    This is already happening in the bathrooms of every big-box store across the land. It says so right there in the emails my grandmother keeps forwarding me, right below the pictures of kittens.

  • Some Engineer||

    There will soon be plenty of social media users thinking about the children, so no worries.

  • Radioactive||

    I think of the childrezn all the fucking time and how delicious they are esp. with a beurre blanc sauce and nice chianti

  • Number 2||

    Not to be overlooked, but this may be the first time that SCOTUS unabashedly applied First Amendment protections to new technology from the outset. In the 1910s SCOTUS held that the free speech guarantee did not apply to motion pictures because the visual component of films made them "more powerful" than mere words' this remained the law for nearly half a century. And we all know that free speech protections do not apply to broadcast media first because of alleged "scarcity," then because of the alleged "intrusiveness" of radio and TV broadcasts.

    Believe me, there are plenty of people on both sides of the political divide that would have been more than happy to have the Court declare that the internet is also "different" like movies were and broadcasting continues to be. It is great to see the Court unanimously shot that notion down.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Good point. But they also ruled that copyright didn't apply to player piano rolls, although that may have depended on how Congress wrote copyright laws.

  • Rich||

    In the 1910s SCOTUS held that the free speech guarantee did not apply to motion pictures because the visual component of films made them "more powerful" than mere words'

    Shh. Perhaps the current SCOTUS doesn't know about hypertext yet.

  • E. Zachary Knight||

    Not really. Brown v EMA was the first video game related case to hit the US Supreme Court and they ruled quite handily in favor of First Amendment protections for video games.

  • Number 2||

    Fair point. The comparison is apt because, at the time, there was much talk about the "harm" that video games were allegedly causing for young people, and there were many calls to regulate their content. But it is still reassuring to see the court continuing to enforce First Amendment rights in connection with new technology, and not being blinded by science.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: SCOTUS Unanimously Rejects Law Banning Sex Offenders From Social Media
    The justices say the law's "unprecedented" and "staggering" scope violates the First Amendment.

    Damn!
    The SCOTUS had a great opportunity to further erode the First Amendment and blew it.
    Well, better luck next time.

  • Rhywun||

    "what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square [...] These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard"

    I could do without all that hooey in a defense of the First Amendment.

  • albo||

    I'm glad I live in a country where even perverts have rights.

  • BearOdinson||

    Hey Walter, what's a pederast?

  • Radioactive||

    come on over here and I'll demonstrate...

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    STEVE SMITH agrees with the Supreme Court.

  • thisbrucesmith||

    I don't think this is quite as far-reaching as the media reports coming out now are making this look. Most states I'm aware of don't have social media bans as comprehensive as North Carolina's. This ruling applies only to North Carolina and states that have similar laws already on the books. Other states have different kinds of restrictions that will probably be tested on a case-by-case basis going forward.

    There's also the matter of Facebook's own ban, which covers all convicted sex offenders, whether they're on the registry or not. I suspect that too will be litigated at a later date, and the nuances of the majority and concurring opinions in this case will come into play then.

  • Mockamodo||

    Facebook is not government. Companies can place all of the restriction they wish on employees or customers, or at least they used to be able to back when we still observed the constitution, not so much since Lincoln started the national change from sovereign states into satellites of the great central soviet.

  • Number 2||

    Not if Facebook is deemed a common carrier. From Wikipedia:

    "A common carrier holds itself out to provide service to the general public without discrimination (to meet the needs of the regulator's quasi judicial role of impartiality toward the public's interest) for the 'public convenience and necessity.' A common carrier must further demonstrate to the regulator that it is 'fit, willing, and able' to provide those services for which it is granted authority."

    FB holds itself out as providing service to the general public without discrimination. And as I recall, FB supported regulating ISPs as common carriers because Big Evil Wealthy Corporations shouldn't be allowed to decide who has access to the internet. Shouldn't FB be held to the same standard?

    It's just a point for discussion for now, but something worth considering, especially if supposedly neutral communication platforms are going to start passing judgment over who will and will not be allowed to communicate on their software.

  • richarddozier@gmail.com||

    Excellent points! It appears that such a challenge to Facebook on its policies (of denying access to registered sex offenders) is already being contemplated.

  • Mockamodo||

    Now if they'd just recognize the same about the second amendment. Someone convicted of bigamy in SC, tattooing a minor in Florida or possibly even selling dildos in Alabama can lose their second amendment rights since all are felonies. Hell, just a few years ago here in SC you could lose your second amendment rights for conviction of homosexual sex, or possession of a single marijuana seed.

  • oncefallendotcom||

    "here in SC you could lose your second amendment rights for conviction of homosexual sex, or possession of a single marijuana seed."

    In other words, don't spill your seed in South Carolina.

  • IMissLiberty||

    The alternative would be to tell people that they must bottle-up their emotions and not express them. Frankly, as annoying as such expressions can be, isn't it better to let potential bombers, hate-filled bigots, and others express themselves in print or song? To prohibit such speech is like advocating the removal of rattles from rattlesnakes.

  • Eman||

    This guy sure sounds like he's packing ham.

  • plusafdotcom||

    And there weren't any protests from Atheists about the blatant and repeated references to those fictitious "Supreme Beings" in his rant?

    Terrible!

    /sarc

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